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High Country Prepares for First Winter Storm of the Season; Information on School Closing Policies

By Nathan Ham

A Winter Storm Warning has been issued for Watauga, Ashe and Avery counties through Thursday afternoon as the first winter storm rolls through the area on Wednesday night and Thursday morning.

A wintry mix is expected to begin late this afternoon and this evening. The biggest threat from this storm will be the sleet and ice potential. According to the National Weather Service, sleet accumulations could reach as much as two inches and ice accumulations reaching a half-inch. There may be some snow mixing in with this storm, however ice will be the biggest factor overnight.

Wind speeds will also pick up with this storm. Wind gusts between 20-35 MPH could bring down trees and power lines that may be covered in ice.

According to the latest forecast update from Ray’s Weather Center, the storm will begin as rain Wednesday afternoon, change to sleet and a wintry mix overnight before turning back to rain on Thursday afternoon. The storm will finally leave the area on Thursday night with some lingering snow showers before clearing off Friday and into the weekend. Temperatures will warm up slightly for Saturday and Sunday with high temperatures in the upper 40s and lower 50s and low temperatures hovering around the freezing mark.

With the serious ice potential of this storm, school systems in the area will be keeping an eye on the weather and on the roads as the storm gets closer.

“I don’t take the decision to delay or cancel school lightly. We know changes in the school schedule have a huge effect on or families, so I want to be sure we do the best possible job to communicate those changes when they are necessary,” said Dr. Scott Elliott, Watauga County Schools Superintendent. “Every day, we have buses and student drivers that travel roads ranging anywhere from 1,900 to 5,500 feet in elevation. Just by nature of how varied our county’s landscape is, there will be days when families living in areas with clear roads will wonder why schools are closed. But because we operate as a unified school system, we have to make a decision based on what is safe for families across the entire county as well as for our student drivers at the high school and over 700 employees.”

Watauga County Schools have missed one day so far this year after canceling school back in September when Hurricane Florence came through the area.

Historically, November is not typically a month that has had a lot of school cancellations. Students in Watauga County have not missed a day of school in November since 2014 and have only missed six days total in November since 1996.

How the decision is made to cancel school for bad weather

When bad weather begins overnight, the process for making decisions about the operation of school kicks off at 3 a.m. when Elliott and Transportation Director Jeff Lyons begin the process of gathering information about road conditions and the most current weather forecast. 

By 3:30 a.m., a road check team consisting of Elliott, Lyons, and other staff members begin driving assigned routes to check road conditions throughout Watauga County. Lyons and Elliott both routinely participate in a morning live conference call with National Weather Service meteorologists in Blacksburg, VA at 4:30 a.m.

The final decision about school schedules and bus routes is based on information gathered from the road check team, NCDOT, local law enforcement and the latest weather forecasts.

That decision is normally made before the first school bus departs at 5:25 a.m. and is announced in several ways: a statement at the top of all pages of school websites atwww.wataugaschools.org; via local media outlets; by automated phone messages, email, and text messages to parents; via Twitter at @WataugaSchools; and through a recorded snow line message at 828-264-0200.

If you have questions about the limited bus routes for your school, you can get more information at wataugaschools.org/limitedroutes, or by contacting the WCS Transportation Department at 828-264-6391.

Blue Ridge Energy Prepares for Potential Winter Weather Impacts

Blue Ridge Energy crews are on high alert and are monitoring potential impacts from the winter storm that is expected to impact the region tonight. 

Line technicians are prepping trucks with all necessary supplies and materials for any outages that may occur as a result of the storm. System operators monitor the Blue Ridge power system and weather on a daily, 24-hour basis and all other employees are on high alert, ready to respond to member needs, including the cooperative’s member/customer service contact center.

Blue Ridge Energy urges members to act now to make preparations to remain safe and comfortable in the event of an outage. While precipitation type and predicted amounts are evolving, the potential for high impacts to our service area from ice exists. 

Keep the Blue Ridge Energy outage reporting number handy: 1-800-448-2383. Members can also report outages on the Blue Ridge Energy mobile app, available for free on app stores.

As a reminder, we urge members to stay away from any downed lines. Contact with downed lines can be dangerous, even deadly. Report downed lines at 1-800-451-5474 or call 911 immediately.